The Waterton Biosphere Reserve is recognized internationally as a special place where people work together to demonstrate innovative approaches to conservation and sustainable use. Designated by UNESCO in 1979, the WBR was Canada’s second biosphere reserve, and the first to include a national park at its core.
As part of UNESCO’s ‘Man and the Biosphere’ Program, the Waterton Biosphere Reserve strives to achieve a sustainable balance between three primary goals:
Located in the southwestern corner of Alberta, no area of similar size in the Canadian Rocky Mountains has as much ecological diversity as the Waterton Biosphere Reserve. Here, some of the most ancient and spectacular mountains in the Rockies abruptly meet the prairie, creating a rich mosaic of habitats – from prairie grasslands and aspen groves, to subalpine forests, alpine meadows, lakes and freshwater wetlands – and an astounding variety of plants and animals.
The region is also home to many vibrant communities – Pincher Creek, Cardston, Crowsnest Pass, Piikani and Kainai Reserves, and others – each with a rich and distinct cultural history, and reliance on a wide range of economic activities. In the WBR, people are actively involved with ranching, farming, tourism and recreation, wind energy, mining, the oil and gas industry, and other natural resource-related activities.
Traditionally, biosphere reserves are organized into three zones or areas – a legally protected core area; an adjacent buffer zone with activities that are compatible with conservation objectives; and a transition zone or ‘area of cooperation’ where sustainable land use is practised.
The protected core area of the WBR is Waterton Lakes National Park [505 km2]. Established in 1895 and managed by Parks Canada, Waterton is the Canadian part of the world’s first International Peace Park (Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, 1932). The peace park was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995.
The Waterton Biosphere Reserve has taken a flexible approach to zonation. The ‘three zone plan’ is essentially a theoretical concept. What is most important is choosing an innovative, cooperative approach that works for the people and environments in the WBR area.
Extending beyond the protected core area of Waterton Lakes National Park is a broad buffer zone of surrounding public and private land, and a flexible transition zone that supports many people in a wide range of economic activities.
Currently, the transition zone is loosely defined. In the WBR, the area of interest extends at least as far as the M.D. of Pincher Creek, Cardston County and Crowsnest Pass, including the Piikani and Kainai Reserves, and a portion of the Rocky Mountain Forest Reserve. Here, the goal of sustainable resource use is explored and encouraged through research, education, and community-based planning.
UNESCO has no authority or regulatory powers within a biosphere reserve. The protected core area is subject to the legal restrictions of the organization responsible for its management. However, the buffer and transition zones, which often make up the majority of the reserve area of interest, are not regulated or restricted in any way by having biosphere reserve status. Government jurisdictions and private rights remain as they were before designation.
The Waterton Biosphere Reserve is also nested within a much larger landscape known as the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem, internationally acclaimed as one of the largest remaining intact ecosystems in North America. Geographically, the Crown of the Continent is centered on the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park and stretches along the axis of the Rocky Mountains between the Canadian Central Rockies and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
The Crown of the Continent covers approximately 72,000 km2 and includes treasured places like Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex in Montana, the Highwood Pass and Waterton Biosphere Reserve in Alberta, and the Flathead River Valley in southeastern British Columbia. This ecosystem provides a secure core of connected land and critical wildlife travel corridors extending north-south from Canada into the United States.
Two other neighbouring biosphere reserves are also located in the Crown of the Continent ecosystem:
The Crown of the Continent ecosystem is divided by national and provincial borders and is managed by a number of provincial, state and federal agencies and First Nations with an array of mandates to oversee preservation, tourism, forestry, mining, oil and gas extraction, energy developments and stock grazing. Commercial developers and local citizens further diversify land administration.
As one of North America’s largest ecologically intact areas, many people work together to raise public awareness and understanding of how environmental, social, and economic components of ecosystems interconnect and support each other.
This video about Waterton Biosphere Reserve was created by Peter Manners and Jaiden Panchyshyn from Pincher Creek, Alberta as part of the Explore 150 initiative with support from the Canadian Commission to UNESCO.